Medals of honor, wars of no honor

murphy-copy.gifPart One of Two
(pictured to right: Audie Murphy)

In memory of Robert Wellen, who died September 23, 2007 — another World War II vet gone.

Neglecting decorated members of the military who served in Iraq might strike a progressive or pacifist as a sign of opposition to our presence there. But the national indifference with which we treat Congressional Medal of Honor winners in general is actually a sign of a deep-seated malaise that, on the contrary, only serves to perpetuate war.

“Poor is the nation that has no heroes, but beggard that Nation that has and forgets them.”
— Anonymous

In America, “support the troops” has been elevated to the status of an eleventh commandment. Whether for or against the Iraq War, we’d never forget our military heroes. Or would we?

Quick –- name the two Congressional Medals of Honor it’s produced. If you picked Pat Tillman, you’re mistaken (though it would have surprised no one if, had he lived, he’d won one). Try Army Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith and Marine Corporal Jason Dunham, both honored posthumously.According to his presidential citation, Sergeant Smith, “moved under withering enemy fire to man a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on a damaged armored personnel carrier. In total disregard for his own life, he maintained his exposed position in order to engage the attacking enemy force” before he was mortally wounded.

Corporal Dunham was attacked at a road check by an insurgent who leaped out of a car and unleashed a grenade. He “covered the grenade with his helmet and body, bearing the brunt of the explosion and shielding his Marines from the blast.”

The point is not to shame Americans for their lack of both knowledge and acknowledgment of those who made the supreme sacrifice, whether for God, country or just their unit. In fact, broadly speaking, it’s been since World War II that medal winners haven’t been treated with the acclaim due them. The 50-year trend seems to have reached its apex, however, with Iraq.

Neglecting decorated members of the military who served in Iraq might strike a progressive or pacifist as a sign of opposition to our presence there. But lest we become “beggard,” it might be worth our while to root out the deeper reasons that military heroism fails to register on our radar.

After World War II, America’s most decorated veteran, First Lieutenant Audie Murphy, was treated to a hero’s reception almost everywhere he went. It was tough to be a boy in the fifties and remain immune to Audie awe, a condition which didn’t necessarily fade when we grew up. Such was Murphy’s fame that it enabled him to serve as the star of a string of B-movie westerns even though he had little to recommend him as an actor other than his unnerving man-hunter gaze.

In his book, No Name on the Bullet: A Biography of Audie Murphy, Don Graham described the incident for which Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor. Here are some excerpts: “hundreds of Germans swarming from the woods. They all had automatic weapons. . . . all alone out there. . . . he climbed onto the tank destroyer turret and began firing its .50-caliber machine gun. . . completely exposed to the enemy fire and there was a blaze under him. . . .

“Twice the tank destroyer was hit by direct shell fire and Lieutenant Murphy was engulfed in clouds of smoke and spurts of flame. . . . He swung the machine gun to where 12 Germans were sneaking up. . . . [and] killed all of them at 50 yards.”

Murphy’s Medal of Honor citation attributed 50 Germans killed or wounded to his actions that day. In less than three years in the European theatre, thanks in part to the hunting skills that became second nature to him during his dirt-poor childhood in Texas, he was credited with killing a total of 240 Germans.

Another Medal of Honor winner who accumulated a high body count was oft-injured Lieutenant Colonel Matt Urban. His exploits didn’t go unnoticed by the Germans, who called him “der geist” (the ghost) because it seemed like he kept coming back from the dead. Meanwhile, the war’s top fighter “ace,” Major Richard Bong, shot down 40 Japanese aircraft.

It’s hard to believe there was a time when our pantheon of personalities wasn’t too rarefied to accommodate decorated members of the military along with its usual deities from the worlds of entertainment, society and sports. In fact, during World War II, service in the war was a prerequisite to prevent an athlete from becoming a pariah and for a movie star to retain his fan base.

For instance, pitcher Warren Spahn won a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. Among Hollywood’s most decorated representatives were character actors Neville Brand, who won a Silver Star and Purple Heart, and Charles Durning, the recipient of a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts.

Come Korea and the status of decorated soldiers began to wane. Hitting great Ted Williams was justifiably lauded for flying 37 combat missions, but who remembers any of that conflict’s 132 Congressional Medals of Honor?

With the advent of the Vietnam War, the public paid less attention to decorated soldiers (by which we also mean members of the Navy and Air Force) than ever. It’s hard to imagine that the exploits of those like First Lieutenant Stephen Karopczyc failed to make an impression. According to his citation, he “dashed through the intense enemy fire into the open. . . . exposed himself as he ran from man to man to give encouragement and to direct their efforts.

“A shot from an enemy sniper struck him above the heart but he refused aid. . . plugging the bleeding wound with his finger. . . he leaped up to cover the deadly grenade with a steel helmet. . . weakened by his multiple wounds, he continued to direct the actions of his men until he succumbed 2 hours later.” There were 245 other such stories.

The obvious reason for our distinct lack of enthusiasm for decorated soldiers after World War II is the absence of both clear-cut goals for a war and of victory shorn of ambiguity. First evident in the “Forgotten War” (Korea), the pattern was carved in stone with Vietnam.

Furthermore, we weren’t fully convinced that those we fought were actually our enemies. At least with the Koreans, who resembled the oft-merciless Japanese, lingering racial hatred from World War II could be summoned.

But the Vietnamese were like third-generation Japanese. While still Oriental, most were too slight of build to invoke fear in the hearts of our corn-fed continent. To put a kind face on it, we may have been suffering from a hint of shame over bullying a smaller enemy.

In the same vein, our reluctance to honor decorated veterans is further complicated by a vague uneasiness about civilians killed along with insurgents. We may have condoned or even cheered it on in a “total war” like World War II. But, perhaps because we soon determined they weren’t direct threats to us, going all Rambo on the Vietnamese and Iraqis didn’t seem called for.

The public may not be motivated to lobby en masse for an end to Iraq. If only out of a subliminal guilt over civilian deaths, though, neither do we wish to honor it. Awards aside, we sometimes wonder how any of our enlisted men and women justify fighting such a war to themselves.

By nature, many service persons are not inclined to the kind of interior life that addressing a question like this requires. But Shannon E. French, a philosophy professor at the US Naval Academy, has thought it through for them. In a 2003 article in The Chronicle Review, she wrote, “Individuals can fight for an objectively bad cause or a corrupt regime and still be warriors, as long as they have a warrior’s code that requires them to observe the rules of war.”

Speaking of playing by the rules, it would be much simpler if those Iraqi militants who actually are Al Qaeda would brandish banners or even arm bands announcing their affiliation. Then Americans could keep a body count scrubbed clean of uncertainty over whether those killed weren’t civilians or just Iraqi nationalists. In the interim, we remain uncomfortable honoring our troops.

(Part 2)

4 replies »

  1. Russ,

    Fascinating piece–well done!

    I’m way too young to remember Audie Murphy, but my parents spoke of him with much the same reverence you do, so I can understand where you’re coming from with this idea. I think you’re right that we’re a lot more reluctant to lionize military accomplishment in our current wars because of the lack of clear-cut foes and easily understood objectives–and the generally increased sophistication that makes us understand that not every Iraqi, Afghanistani, or Vietnamese is our foe.

    But there’s a darker undercurrent to this as well. Here in America, we love to tear down our heroes as soon as they achieve, because we resent those who have surpassed us or do things we don’t do. We cherish mediocrity and the “average,” and anyone who doesn’t behave in that pattern is as fit for scorn as they are honor. In the case of soldiers, we simultaneously make sure that everyone around us knows we “support the troops” while denying them health care, post-war employment, and the respect they’ve earned for their sacrifices.

    Put more simply, we’re a bunch of sedentary, pasty pussies that revels in the fact that we have an all-volunteer army to fight our wars, but resents said army for actually going out and doing what we won’t. It’s a weirdly schizo, passive-aggressive streak in our culture–war is now too good for US to fight, so we reserve it for the poor, the Black, the Hispanic, and all those people we’d rather just get rid of. And when they have the temerity to not die like martyrs, we don’t know what to do with them.

    When I worked at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I was just shocked and horrified at the crappy conditions the soldiers had to endure. This was a few years before the scandal broke, but even then, they were basically castoffs, rejects, and unwanted. I never had much patience for people fetishizing the military after that, because I saw what we REALLY think of our troops firsthand.

  2. This is a fine piece, Russ. I’ve been watching Ken Burns’s THE WAR documentary and thinking a lot about my uncle who drove an LST landing GI’s at Omaha Beach on D-Day and my father-in-law, who was a Navy UDT guy in the Pacific (they’re the ancestors of our Navy Seals). He served at Iwo, Saipan, and other nasty places….

    They were brave men who did remarkable things and who wouldn’t talk about their experiences until shortly before their deaths. I’m glad they finally did.

    But they were in a fight that wasn’t our doing. And wasn’t being motivated by military industrial interests. And wasn’t about money.

    That doesn’t make the way we treat our military folks (I know many – they take classes through the university) right. But it explains some of our unease about how to relate to them.

  3. Two excellent points, Martin:

    “Here in America, we love to tear down our heroes as soon as they achieve.” Guess that’s the dark side of the supposed equality of democracy.